Pet First Aid – How To Help Your Pet In An Emergency

By Dr. Nelson Bricker, Veterinarian

For medical problems that need attention right away, being able to start treatment before leaving for the hospital, can really make more definitive treatment easier later on. Knowing what can be handled by most people at home, or how to start treatment for conditions that don’t have time to get to a veterinarian without attention can really make the difference for some pets, and I want to share basics that all pet owners should know. With most of these conditions, following up with your vet to make sure they recover properly and completely is always recommended.

The first thing that needs to be addressed with first aid in pets is being prepared. Pet owners should have a travel kit of first aid basics to help them with problems wherever they occur. While sometimes all you can do is get to the nearest veterinary hospital, sometimes being prepared can make treatment easier later.

What to do if your pet suffers a trauma?

Traumas are a common, unexpected problem that often needs to be addressed immediately. Injuries can come from bites from other animals, sharp objects, falls or car accidents, and it can be hard sometimes to tell all the injuries that have occurred. Always assume your pet may be in pain, and may act out of character because of this. Securing a muzzle or other protective measures before addressing wounds is almost always a good idea. Try to make the pet comfortable, reduce movement and look for normal breathing, or signs of bleeding.  Bleeding can have pressure held if tolerated by your pet to slow it down, but most pets should be seen as soon as possible by a veterinarian for full evaluation. If available, use gauze or wrap to keep pressure on an injury and replace any time it bleeds through. Even if injuries are not obvious on the outside, internal bleeding or other abnormalities may be present that require diagnostics and special training to detect. Never give your pet over the counter pain medication, or other treatments not recommended by a veterinary professional, as these will be more likely to interfere with treatments and cause complications.

What if your pet is experiencing minor bleeding?

Minor bleeding from a nail or is likely one of the most common issues we get asked about, and can be important to slow down to limit blood loss before getting to a veterinarian. It is important to note if your pet has, or is at risk of having a clotting disorder. Common signs of this would be bruising easily, bleeding when losing baby teeth, heat cycle, or from nail trims and neuter or spay surgery more than expected. If these are noted, even minor bleeding, such as from a nails cut too short should be seen by a veterinarian and may require more intensive treatment. Minor bleeding from a nail trim generally only requires brief pressure and a clotting agent can be applied to shorten time for bleeding to stop. “Kwick Stop” or other commercial product should be kept on hand, but corn starch or flour can be used in a pinch and applied directly to the end of the nail with some pressure for 30 seconds, and repeated if needed. Clotting agents can cause tissue damage to larger wounds and make healing more difficult. Larger cuts or punctures that are bleeding can have pressure applied with a clean cloth, gauze, or paper towel. Pressure should be firm and constant to allow clotting. If available, the cloth can be changed when it soaks through and you can check every 10 minutes to see if bleeding has stopped. Continuous bleeding from limbs can have a tourniquet applied closer to the body than the injury. Rubber bands, shoe-laces, or other ties can work to stop blood loss, but can also damage tissue if left on long and are only needed in the most severe cases.

What to do if your pet suffers a fracture?

Fractures can occur with a variety of injuries and are often hard to tell by looking at an animal. If your pet is obviously painful, or the fracture is not stable and easy to see, it is important to limit any use of the affected leg. Muzzling pets can help prevent bites when they are painful. It may be helpful to have a stretcher on hand for larger pets, though a towel, blanket, or carrier may be used instead. While splinting the leg may seem like a good idea, it may not help much until the bones are set your pet is sedated and given pain medication and usually requires experience to place even in best conditions. 

How to help a choking pet.

Choking is often seen by owners, and most pets will cough and clear the airway. If your pet can still breath, bring them to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Most times owners feel their pet is chocking, it is actually another condition and trying to clear the airway may hurt you or your pet. If your pet cannot breathe, passes out, or gums turn blue, clearing the airway is important. One person can hold the mouth open, while someone else can look for anything caught in the throat with pliers, or tongs if available. It is best to hold the mouth open with some sort of strap behind the canine teeth on the top and lower jaw. It can help to pull the tongue gently forward with one hand to see the back of the throat. If nothing is visible, the pet can be placed on its side and a sharp compression or strike with the palm of the hand given 3-4 times to help push air out suddenly and clear the airway. Supportive care and monitoring after a stroke is recommended after chocking, so follow up even once breathing is established.

What if your pet suffers a heat stroke?

Heat stroke can affect many dogs in warmer months. Brachycephalic (smoosh face) breeds are more prone to this condition, but it can occur to any pet. Being locked in a car, even with windows open can overheat a pet quickly, as can over-exertion. Signs include raspy breathing as airway swells, stringy drool, weakness, collapse, and bloody diarrhea. Overheating causes brain swelling, clotting problems and shock, which may present as sings hours after overheating. Even if you can cool a pet down, it is important to have a veterinarian monitor them for any of these complications. Cooling can be done by using water or rubbing alcohol on paw pads and ears and having cool air blow over them. A wet towel can be placed over the body, but airflow is important. Getting them into air conditioned areas will help a lot. Ice baths may over-cool a pet and should be monitored in a veterinary facility. A rectal temperature can be taken safely and temperatures over 104F should be cooled immediately.

What to do if your pet ingests a poisonous substance?

Poison ingestion occurs regularly and treatments are always tailored to what was eaten. While some toxins should be vomited up, others would cause serious injury. Mole and gopher poison can even cause a toxic gas when vomited hurting people and pets if ventilation is poor. Because of the number and range of toxins, most veterinarians will recommend calling Animal Poison Control (888) 426-4435) for a consultation first, then discussing treatments with the veterinarian. If they recommend inducing vomiting at home, it is often done with hydrogen peroxide, so this is useful to have on hand for dogs.

What to do if your pet has a seizure?

Seizures are not an uncommon occurrence in pets and can occur from a number of reasons. If these are short lived, no intervention is necessary, and the pet can follow up with the veterinarian. The pet should be monitored for further seizures activity carefully and an attempt should be made to find the cause of the seizure.  Make sure your pet is in a safe place, they cannot hit anything hard or have something fall on them. If the seizure is prolonged, getting to a veterinary hospital is important. Some animals overheat with prolonged seizures, may bite owners during or while recovering from a seizure, or injury themselves falling. Ensure you and your pet are safe. Small and young animals, or diabetics may seizure from low blood sugar. Karo or other syrup can be placed on the gums to help raise blood sugar levels. 

What if your pet goes into cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest is a critical emergency, however often over-diagnosed by owners. Please speak with a veterinarian to learn how to assess heart rate, though this may be a challenge for even professionals in large or overweight animals. If you are sure your pet’s heart has stopped, lay them on their side, clear the airway as mentioned above, and begin compressions on the chest. Large dogs should be compressed at the widest point of the rib-cage, where very small dogs and cats can have the chest massaged just behind the point of the elbow. Compressions should squeeze about 1/4 the width of the chest, and may break bones, which is why it should only be done in critical cases.

Regardless of the reason first aid is started, it is always recommended to call a veterinarian who may be able to walk you tough basic steps over the phone, and help guide you to a hospital safely. It is important to keep calm and have a plan in place, or it may just result in greater injury to you and your pet. And remember, Rocky Gorge Animal Hospital is open 24/7/365 for pet emergencies.

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